After two years of strip mining, land is nearly depleted of precious zones
No one passes through eastern Chanthaburi and Tratprovinces in Thailand unnoticed.
Drivers are stopped at police and military checkpoints. Car trunks are searched and
questions asked: "Where are you going? What are you doing here?"
Policemen may conclude the interrogation by offering tourism tips, then add with
a smile: "Let us know if we can be of any service while you're here."
Tourism is still finding its feet in a region dominated by gems and by its symbiotic
relationship with Cambodia. There's a mountain range in the way, but thousands of
independent gem miners make their way back and forth across the border, braving land
mines and malarial mosquitoes.
A couple of years ago, the roads at several border checkpoints-heavily guarded by
the Thai military-were widened to accommodate the large trucks and bulldozers of
Thai mining concerns. The Thai miners have been paying guests of the Khmer Rouge,
which concentrated its power in the gem regions of Pailin and Samlot.
Questions have been asked about these business arrangements and the support they
give to the Khmer Rouge. Somchai Niyomkit, Democrat MP for Chanthaburi, owns the
biggest cutting factory in the province and supplies stones to Sawang Export, one
of Thailand's largest jewelry firms. Although not a miner himself, Somchai defends
the right of Thais to mine in Cambodia. He pointed out that the Khmer Rouge are recognized
by the United Nations as a legitimate faction.
"It's not illegal," he says. "We're registered with the government
in Cambodia." Problems in Cambodia are not Thailand's concern, Somchai adds.
"I don't care about Cambodia's business," he says. "I care about my
The polished gem trading district of Chanthaburi is highly sophisticated compared
to the rough stone market of Borai, a tiny border town in Trat province. The policemen
here carry M-16s. The only hotel, the Honey Inn, is a notorious brothel, and the
dusty streets turn to mud in the rainy season.
Ramshackle shop-fronts line the main street, where up to 1,000 wildcat miners
and brokers crowd the footpaths every morning to trade rough stones.
This is mining country, and even the elite have callouses on their hands. The gem
miners are mostly self-made men who are keen competitors but friends-a loosely knit
fraternity of high-stakes gamblers.
Pairot Bunrit is president of the Borai gem traders association.
Two years ago, when Pairot started his Cambodian venture, the Thai miners had to
walk to the mining site in Samlot. "It took three days. All the equipment had
to be carried," Pairot said. About a year ago the road was widened, so heavy
equipment can make the journey when it is dry.
Most of the Thais at Samlot paid 10 million Thai baht (U.S. $250,000) for their concessions.
The terms of the contract, however, are flexible; some paid as little as 300,000
baht, others as much as 20 million baht (U.S. $800,000).
"If you know someone high up in the Khmer army, and you've ever helped them
out, then you get a good price," Pairot said. "If you have a very good
connection you don't have to pay anything."
Every 10 days Pairot visits his mine when the jigs are opened and the gems are examined.
He sets a price and pays the Khmer Rouge 45 percent of the total. "You can't
cheat them-they know the price," he says. "If you bargain too hard, they
will just take the stones."
Pairot has 20 workers at the site and two bulldozers. His daily operating expenses
come to 30,000 baht (U.S. $1,200). Meanwhile, the price of rough rubies has fallen
10 percent or 15 percent from last year.
Eight or nine large Thai companies now have mines at Samlot, Pairot says. "They
have subcontracted by selling off parts of their plots to other Thais," he says.
The rubies from Samlot are good quality, "better than Thai," he says, but
they are almost depleted from the site.
Pairot is worried about where he will mine next. He first ventured into Cambodia
because rubies were becoming scarce in the available land around Borai. "When
we pull out of Cambodia we will have to look around more here," he said. "Once
the problem with the Cambodian political situation is settled, the Thai military
can open the border area for mining. There are a lot of gems there, but it's off
Leaving Borai and heading towards the border, the road turns into a rutted, dirt
track requiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Ban Ta Bat, a small collection of shacks
at the foothills of the mountains, is the last stop before the Thai military checkpoint,
just across the border from Samlot.
Individual miners, carrying their homemade washing trays of bamboo and wire mesh,
can be seen panning in the streams or returning home from Cambodia.
The most important miner in Ban Ta Bat is Sia Awn, who lives in a simple house decorated
with carved murals of Angkor Wat and other Cambodian souvenirs.
Sia Awn is young, but his tanned face is weathered and crinkled with smile lines.
He looks like a farmer, and he thinks of himself as one. "Being a miner is like
being a farmer," he says. "It's hard to get rich as a miner. The middleman
gets rich. I don't know the stone market well. I don't have good connections-I'm
too busy working in the jungle."
Sia Awn began mining in Cambodia 10 years ago. "I started off with just a shovel
and my own hands. You didn't have to pay anything then," he says. "You
just hid in the forest. If the Khmer Rouge found you, they took everything from you-your
money, equipment, everything. You had only your underwear left."
As Sia Awn became more successful, he hired workers. Twenty of his men were injured
over the years, most losing a leg to land mines. Six or seven died.
The peak period for mining at Samlot was three years ago, Sia Awn said. At that time,
he started using water cannons to blast the soil into separation jigs. Water was
not a problem since the mining area lies by a river, but the vacuum pumps for the
water cannons needed fuel. Sia Awn needed 200 workers to carry the petrol in each
day. It was gruelling, dangerous work, and Sia Awn had to pay each man 1,800 baht
(U.S. $72) a trip.
Still, he made a good profit. In one two-month period during the rainy season he
collected rubies worth three million baht a day. The average was 500,000 baht (U.S.
"That time was better," Sia Awn recalls fondly. "There wasn't so much
investment for equipment. For the contract I have now I paid 10 million baht. I use
a bulldozer, which cost me another 2.5 million baht." He also pays the Khmer
Rouge for 45 percent of his finds.
He must sell all the gems he mines immediately so that he can cover his expenses.
His 20 workers earn between 3,000 baht (U.S. $150) and 15,000 baht (U.S. $600) a
month, depending on skill.
"It's harder to find the stones now. There was only one place that was 10 times
better three years ago. There are other areas nearby with gems, but the Khmer Rouge
won't open them. They don't have enough people to control a bigger area," says
It is harder to make a profit these days, but Sia Awn says he has no plans to change
"It's like a drug," he says. "I can't stop. Today, maybe I won't get
any money; tomorrow, maybe I'll get rich. It depends on the stars. You never know
Like many of the miners in Tambon Nong Ben, just north of Borai, Sia Pae was eager
to try his luck in Pailin two years ago when the border crossings were upgraded and
the Khmer Rouge began offering concessions.
He was soon disappointed. "It wasn't worth it," he says. "I invested
10 million baht, but I only got two million in stones."
After pulling out of Pailin he opened a mine in Samlot, this time investing less
and negotiating better terms in his contract. He paid 3 million baht for the right
to mine for six months over five blocks of land. He does not have to pay an additional
45 percent for the gems he finds. "It's better to just pay a flat rate,"
he says. "I don't want to have to share what I find."
Still, he is losing money, Sia Pae admits. "I have six bulldozers there, and
30 workers. My expenses are 60,000 baht a day."
All the Thai miners in Cambodia are losing money, he says. "Everyone will pull
out very soon. In three months there will be no stones left. The Khmer Rouge won't
open any more land and the Thais are afraid to invest more."
Sai Pae said his mine in Nong Bon has much lower overhead and yields more gems. Still,
he could not resist trying his luck in Cambodia. "I wanted to get rich,"
he says, smiling. "If you happen to get a very good block of land you can get
a lot of stones. It's very risky-you can't test the soil in advance-but you have
Tambon Nong Bon is also home to Paitoon Sarakhet, known by everyone as Sia Jik, the
biggest miner in Trat and Chanthaburi.
Sia Jik, 45, compares the Thai mining invasion in Cambodia to the California gold
"Everybody was talking about how much money you could make in Cambodia if you
invested a lot," he says "They said you need to spend 10 million baht and
buy a lot of heavy equipment, but that's not true. The land over there is not suitable
for bulldozers because there aren't enough stones. Actually you shouldn't spend more
than 1 million baht if you want to make a profit."
Many of the Thais who opened mines in Cambodia had limited mining experience and
did not know the land well, Sia Jik says. He also mines in Cambodia, but he invested
little. He started in Pailin but closed that operation a year ago and moved to Samlot,
which is better, he says. He limited his investment to water cannons and only 10
"There are still a lot of rubies in Cambodia, but everybody has already spent
a lot of money and there is a limit to the land open for mining, so they have to
come back," Sia Jik says. "All the Thais will pull out soon. I'll pull
out, too. Actually, I don't need to mine in Cambodia because I have many mines in
Thailand. I just wanted to get to know the land in Cambodia, that's all."
Sia Jik slowly upgraded his equipment. "I bought little by little," he
says. "Ten years ago I started mining on a large scale. I invested a lot. I
now have eight bulldozers and three tractors."
His most profitable mine, in Nong Bon, produces stones worth two million baht a month;
outgoings are about 30,000 baht a day.
"Miners fail for several reasons," Sia Jik says. "One, they don't
know how to do it well. Secondly, when they get money they don't know how to spend
it. They buy a house in Chanthaburi or Bangkok. You can't do anything with a house.
When I got money I bought more land in good mining areas. That's why I'm successful.
I have enough land now to keep mining for the next 10 years."
Carol Clarke is managing editor of JewelSiam magazine. This story is reproduced by
permission of Jewelry Trade Publications, Bangkok.